Allegro
Allegro

I own a lovely single-family home in a peaceful block in upper Queen Anne. My son is at Coe Elementary school, with his sister soon to join him there. Coe is a wonderful community — my wife and I are fortunate to have such a strong neighborhood public school — and I am proud to serve on the Executive Committee of the Coe PTA. I like and respect my neighbors, many of whom were disappointed with voters in 2016 for not prioritizing glaring social and economic inequities. I am not a housing developer. 

In so many ways I am the exact type of community member the Queen Anne Community Council (QACC) says it speaks for in its appeal of the city’s rules for backyard cottages/mother-in-law suites (accessory residences). 

Yet I strongly disagree with QACC’s appeal, and I know neighbors across the city and many in Queen Anne see in this more inclusive proposal for zoning a way to walk-the-walk locally on the type of welcoming and inclusive policies we clamor for in the national arena. The QACC is currently appealing the analysis (EIS) of new rules that remove key barriers to additional accessory housing close to schools and parks for young families or aging-in-place.

Status quo zoning creates barriers that prevent the city from living up to its values and fails Queen Anne to boot. 

As the city’s analysis shows, current policy is not promoting the construction of family-sized housing. Since the city opened the doors to mother-in-law suites and backyard cottages years ago, out of our 135,000 single-family lots, perhaps 2,500 accessory units have been constructed citywide, with about 500 of those being backyard cottages.  Without changes to current rules, the city anticipates maybe 2,000 more of these units over ten years. 

In the same way that my neighbors and I value the opinions of scientists on climate change, I trust housing experts around the region. They have identified that in order to incentivize more of this family-sized accessory housing, we should loosen residence limits per lot and lot size, use lot-space for housing rather than more parking, and allow accessory residence construction in situations where the main home is rented out. We are lucky to be able to learn from other cities. If we makes some of these changes, according to the EIS we could double the amount of individuals and families who can access new accessory homes or age-in-place options when compared to the status quo.

Meanwhile in Queen Anne, the barriers to constructing accessory residences is compounded by sky-high housing and land values and minimal limits on the size of rebuilds. So though my neighbors and I complain about homes being torn down and replaced with behemoths, that is often the best economic calculus within current zoning rules.  Whether you like or hate the aesthetics of these massive homes, they make it harder for Seattleites to access the opportunities of Queen Anne without extreme wealth, and they likely physically and economically displace current residents. 

The proposal I and others support, and that the QACC is appealing, would tackle this ‘tear-down’ problem by creating a limit on the size of newly constructed homes based on their lot size, which will further contribute to making accessory residences a more attractive economic option. The city estimates 500 less home tear downs citywide form these policies, and 38% less in neighborhoods like Queen Anne. That is good policy.

At the recent QACC meeting on the appeal hosted by Marty Kaplan, I showed up with members of More Options for Accessory Residences (MOAR), Seattle neighbors who participated thoughtfully and passionately. They, and I, want the QACC to know that they are not appealing just the aims of a councilmember, but the preferred outcome of me and many Seattle neighbors seeking a welcoming and more affordable Seattle, including many of the 50 percent of our neighbors who rent. 

The QACC appealed this action once previously, in order to require a full analysis, an appeal that had legal merit.  Here, the city’s study has found the impacts are not projected to be significant — for higher-priced areas like Queen Anne the EIS anticipates less than 600 new accessory units across the city over ten years, coupled with a 38 percent reduction in teardowns over baseline.  I find it troubling that this minor level of development, in an extremely developed city, is the significant impact the QACC is spending thousands to appeal.

Our current rules on accessory residences represent a compromise, middle-ground approach and as we’ve seen, they aren’t working for more housing and they aren’t stopping teardowns. We know that the requirements for additional off-site parking and for owners to occupy rather than rent the primary homes are the biggest barriers to new accessory housing, and must change. But, I support the city’s decision to require one year of ownership if you want to build a second accessory residence. This is an excellent way to prevent speculative housing value increases while still removing barriers to accessory residences.

I’m not interested in accessory housing on my property, and like the rest of the owners on Seattle’s 135,000 single-family lots, this proposal won’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do. When Seattle downzoned some of its multi-family neighborhoods to single-family decades ago, it did so to the detriment of redlined communities of color, and that was a conscious choice with real impacts on wealth accumulation.  Many of us, myself very much included, have benefited financially from that choice.  Similarly, when Seattle chooses today not to modify its zoning, it is a conscious choice that has real negative impacts on real neighbors.

I will never be convinced that the character of a community comes first from its buildings and sidewalks. Community character comes from the characters the community welcomes into its fold. Mayor Durkan and the City Council should prepare to immediately approve this legislation after the appeal inevitably fails.

Justin Allegro is an Upper Queen Anne homeowner and volunteer with More Options for Accessory Residences (MOAR). He can be reached at allegrojustin@gmail.com.